Do Amish farm children hold the key to preventing asthma?

iowa amish childrenFor some time now, the Amish have been known to have lower rates of asthma.

But in a new academic paper released yesterday (New England Journal of Medicine), researchers have discovered a key difference in Amish children, who typically grow up on small family farms reliant on horsepower, and Hutterite children, who live on large mechanized farms.

From the International Business Times:

The paper, published Thursday in the New England Journal of Medicine, studied 60 children of school-going age, 30 from the Amish community in Middlebury, Indiana and 30 from the Hutterite colony near Mitchell in South Dakota.

Researchers found no cases of asthma in Amish children and six cases among Hutterite children. They ran blood tests which confirmed that children from the two communities had similar genetic profiles. However, Amish children had more neutrophils, a kind of white blood cells that are important in fighting infections. Researchers also found that Amish children had younger white blood cells indicating that constant exposure to germs stimulated their immune system to produce more cells. Both groups had the same number of monocytes, another kind of white blood cells.

“This was a phenomenal difference,” Anne Sperling, the study’s co-author and immunologist at the University of Chicago reportedly said. “We were blown away.”

A second piece of the study reveals that house dust collected from Amish homes and that from Hutterite dwellings also differs, with Amish house dust having no effect on mice “sensitized to develop asthma symptoms.”

On the other hand, Hutterite house dust caused the mice swollen air passages and breathing difficulties.

What are the implications of the study? Does this mean an asthma cure is at hand? From the Los Angeles Times:

Overall, the experiments help explain why farm life is associated with a reduced risk of asthma, Harvard immunologist Dr. Talal Chatila wrote in an editorial that accompanies the study.

But other questions remain, he wrote. For instance, it’s not clear whether kids have to maintain their exposure to farm animals to keep asthma at bay. Some protection may even occur before birth, by prompting epigenetic changes in utero.

Carol Ober, an expert on human genetics at the University of Chicago who worked on the study, acknowledged that more work is needed to translate these findings into asthma-fighting therapies.

“You can’t put a cow in every family’s house,” she said in a statement. “But we may be able to protect children from asthma by finding a way to re-create the time-tested Amish experience.”